Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is the fruit of a long friendship — and a love both for the instrument and its player. Clarinetist Anton Stadler was a fellow Freemason, and he seems also to have been an astounding performer. One contemporary wrote of him, “I would not have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice so deceptively as you imitate it. Your instrument is so soft, so delicate in tone that no one who has a heart can resist it.” In this quintet, and in his Clarinet Concerto, Mozart offered his friend the richest of gifts: two unsurpassed showcases for his instrument.
This serene piece was Mozart’s contribution to an annual Christmas benefit concert for widows of Viennese musicians. At the premiere, on December 22, 1789, he joined Stadler on stage, playing the viola part. Even though he wrote it in turbulent times — in September 1789, the French Revolution was sending shock waves around Europe, especially in Imperial Vienna — Mozart seems simply to have shut the door on the turbulent world and turned to a place of great calm and beauty.
It would be fascinating to read an interview with composer and soloist, discussing in what ways this piece reflects Stadler’s unique style. The qualities the eyewitness observed — “delicate in tone” and “like the human voice” — could also describe Mozart’s music. Most of his quintets were written for strings alone; only the Quintet for Piano and Winds and this Clarinet Quintet stand apart. In both pieces, the featured instruments are treated as a first among equals. They behave mostly like concerto soloists, but can take a back seat to allow other instruments to flower. As Donald Tovey noted, “[The clarinet] . . . is not intended to blend with the strings, but nowhere gives a more intense pleasure than where it behaves as an inner part exactly like the others.”
Mozart presents the clarinet in many guises. There is something almost comic about the yodeling solo in the second trio of the Menuetto and, bearing in mind Stadler’s “singing quality,” Mozart wrote a beautiful solo aria for him in the Larghetto — music that could easily be sung, rather than played.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2006
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók ranks alongside the likes of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg as one of the most original and influential composers of the twentieth century. His viscerally compelling musical language drew from a wide range of influences, from Bach and Beethoven to his own contemporaries and even American jazz. But the most distinctive and arguably most consequential aspect of Bartók’s art is his interest in, and avid championship of, Central European folk music. Generally regarded as history’s first ethnomusicologist, Bartók traveled extensively throughout the Central European countryside, listening to and recording Hungarian, Romanian, and Slovak peasant music; his deep study of this music was the most important influence on his own work. His absorption of peasant music and his integration of it into his scores truly distinguish his musical language and have established Bartók as the central figure of modern Hungarian music.
The Romanian Folk Dances, composed in 1915 and orchestrated in 1917, are as clear a demonstration of the influence of Central European folk music on Bartók’s oeuvre as anything he composed. They are the most popular works completed during a fruitful “Romanian year,” which also saw piano settings of Romanian Christmas Songs and a Sonatina later transcribed as the orchestral Erdélyi táncok (Transylvanian Dances). Though Bartók typically simulated the character of folk music in his pieces, rather than appropriating actual folk melodies, these six dances derive directly from fiddle tunes that he heard and recorded on his musicological travels. The first movement, Jocul cu Bata (Stick Dance), takes its theme from a tune introduced to Bartók by a gypsy violinist in Transylvania. The following two movements come from the eastern Slovak village of Egreš: the Brâul, or Sash Dance, is named for the waistband that would traditionally have been worn by the dancer; perhaps the most exotic-sounding of the dances is the third of the set, Pe Loc (In One Spot). Following the slow Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance) and a vigorous Romanian Polka, the set concludes with a thrilling Maruntel (Fast Dance).
Patrick Castillo ©2014